John McKay has been blogging his research on the early days of mammoth discoveries in Asia and it is an amazing read! Who ever said that academic writing has to be dull!?
Studying early knowledge of mammoths presents two problems. The first, is that the people who found mammoth remains were almost never literate and the people who wrote about mammoth remains were so far removed that they almost always got their information second or third hand or worse. The second problem is that, lacking a common name for mammoth remains, it is a huge task to sort out references to mammoth ivory from similar materials used in carving. Giles Fletcher’s fish tooth ivory is most likely walrus ivory. Notice how close his description is to Kashghari’s and Kirakos’. Does that mean they were all describing walrus ivory? Could they have each been describing something different? And, while Fletcher’s description is clearly of a walrus, can we be sure that all of the ivory he saw came from the same source? Was he throwing mammoth ivory in with walrus ivory and calling them the same thing? More research is in order.
At this point, an interesting fact to notice is that none of the Chinese sources have mentioned ivory yet. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the various shu are not mammoths. Although European naturalists had enthusiastically studied the mammoth since about 1700, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that they knew how the tusks were positioned. The reason for this was that they had never recovered a skull with the tusks still attached. Though generous bounties were offered for mammoth remains, the Siberian natives never reported them until after they had removed and sold the tusks. It’s possible that a similar process was at work in rural China.
The generation of men who conquered Siberia were mostly illiterate and, even if they could write, they had little time for natural history, anthropology, or anything else not related to surviving, extracting wealth, and making it back alive. By the middle of the next century, a different type of person began to arrive in Siberia. Along with a more settled population came educated administrators, diplomats, and higher church authorities who had time to more closely look at the land and its treasures. At some point, they became interested in the giant bones and ivory that the natives called “mammoth.”
For centuries, if not millennia, before 1600, carvable materials had been coming out of northern Eurasia along with descriptions of large buried monsters. Of the surviving written descriptions, it’s clear that many of them refer to fossil mammoth ivory and frozen mammoth carcasses, but, with many of the descriptions, it’s less clear what the writers referred to. For historians and biologists, one of the biggest problems in sorting these descriptions out is, that the ancient writers used a large number of different terms and, lacking a common terminology, it’s almost impossible to determine what they were referring to. In the 1690s, the word “mammoth” came out of Siberia and was adopted by the intellectual community of Western Europe. While this improved matters considerably, it also created some ambiguities of its own.
Witsen’s narrative of his journey, with the explanation of mammoths, was only a small part of his total work. Besides being buried inside a mountain of other material, the dissemination of Witsen’s information on mammoths was handicapped by the book’s publication history. Witsen never finished with the project. For the rest of his life, he continued to add new material. Only a few copies of each edition were printed, probably for his circle of friends. Only ten copies of his map are known to exist. Nevertheless, the Republic of Letters was a small enough community that word of his new word spread throughout Europe.
Several things stand out in Avril’s account. His translation of mammoth (or mamout or mamant) as Behemot is something that many later travelers will also do. The mention that Persians and Turks use Behemot ivory for knife handles ties into the earlier Arab sources who wrote about the substance khutu, imported from the North and used knife handles. His description of Behemot as a living animal on the shores of the Arctic ocean, suggests that he was applying the word to something other than fossil mammoth ivory. However, the mouth of the Lena River is one of the richest grounds in Siberia for collecting mammoth ivory, which suggests he was. We’ll examine all of these points after we hear from the rest of the Russian travelers.
More still to come, so stay tuned….read Archy.